Life After Harvey: Supporting a New Normal

Katy Kaesebier, Associate Director, Center for Student Involvement, University of Houston

December 4, 2017

It was the first week of Weeks of Welcome at the University of Houston (UH), and like many of you, our focus was on welcoming thousands of new and returning Cougars to campus. We noticed a chance of rain in the 10-day forecast, but felt hopeful that the weather would be fine for our outdoor events later that week. As the week progressed, the chance of rain increased slowly and Tropical Storm Harvey reformed in the Gulf of Mexico. We spent the morning of Thursday, August 24 checking every weather station and app, and put our rain plans into motion for several events. We still hosted the annual Glow Party outdoors in what we would soon realize was the calm before the storm. 

The next morning, we moved boxes of event supplies, computers, power cords, and sound equipment from the floor to higher ground, watching Harvey grow stronger with every passing hour. When campus officially closed, we knew it was serious. We ran to our cars in the pouring rain, heading home to hunker down for the next few days. Harvey went on to become a Category 4 storm that dropped between 40-60 inches of rain on Southeast Texas over the course of 6 days. This resulted in catastrophic flooding that would forever change Houston and those of us lucky enough to call this city home. 

During the storm, the days were filled with watching the news, responding to concerned family and friends, and watching the floodwaters rise to record levels. A famous quote from Fred Rogers tends to pop up during difficult times. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” True to this quote, before the rain had even stopped, the UH community sprang into action to help our fellow Cougars and Houstonians. The ride out team supported approximately 2,000 students who stayed on campus, ultimately helping some students evacuate one residence hall. The University’s communication team sent daily messages with updates, resources, and helpful information. The UH campus was closed for a full week. 

Across Houston, the dining room tables of many staff members were turned into satellite offices with computers surrounded by bottled water, flashlights, and batteries. Plans were made for donation drives, carpools were coordinated to serve at shelters across the city, and groups were organized to muck out flooded homes. Schools, churches, and community centers became temporary donation centers, and had to turn away donations because they had received more items than they had the capacity to manage. Everywhere you turned, people were hurting, but it seemed that there were even more people helping. 

Some people returned to work as usual the week after Harvey, but all of us began to define a new normal in the wake of one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history. Three months after Harvey, for more than 47,000 Texans that new normal still includes calling a hotel or motel home. Over 136,000 homes were damaged in Harris County alone and homeowners continue to face the challenge of rising costs with contractors and supplies for rebuilding. Many college students are still navigating the financial challenges that come with a natural disaster. As weeks passed, filling volunteer shifts at the shelters became more difficult and the attention of our nation shifted to the next tragedy. 

The question remains: How does our community create a sustained response when life goes back to “normal” after something of this magnitude? Since the storm, the Metropolitan Volunteer Program has created a Disaster Relief committee that provides consistent opportunities for students to volunteer with Harvey-related projects in the community. The Center for Student Involvement coordinated a donation drive that collected and distributed over 5,000 items to members of the UH community. Faculty and staff adjusted course work and programs to fit within the shortened semester. The Cougar Emergency Fund continues to provide one-time grants of up to $2,500 for students who have demonstrated financial need as a result of Harvey. 

This is not the first time Student Affairs Professionals have had to face a challenge that impacts an entire campus community, and it definitely will not be the last. Part of our role is to identify ways to provide sustained support to our students for the weeks, months, and years following a tragedy. For Houston and the surrounding areas, rebuilding is only just beginning. It is anticipated that recovery will take years, with many estimating over a decade. In one of the most diverse cities at one of the most diverse campuses in the country, our ability to be successful in this process is dependent on working together across our differences. The road ahead will be long, but we are in it together, and we are all #HoustonStrong and #CougarStrong.

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